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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eyes Wide Open- A Love & Peace Corps Story

I was twenty-one and I knew everything.  I knew how to pull an all-nighter and how to make amazing macaroni and cheese from a box. I knew I wanted to marry later in life, do a lot of dancing and wanted nothing more than to save the world.  I was leaving for the Peace Corps a month after my college graduation with a brick red backpack and hazel eyes wide open.  I was ready to make a difference; to embrace and challenge Africa.  I was going to make a change for the better.

Almost a year before I left I had met a boy.  Our mothers set us up on a blind date and we saw fireworks on the fourth of July.  He told me that night that he could picture what our children would look like, which would have normally sent me screaming but I figured I owed it to my mom to stay.  After a few more hours of that first date, I knew I didn’t want to have anymore first dates.  Over the next several months we were nothing short of intoxicated with one another.  America is a brilliant land of instant gratification; an effortless place to let love grow.  We had a long distance romance with all of the beautiful modern conveniences of late night phone calls, passionate weekends in small towns and many sunflower deliveries.  I could feel him in every part of my physical being but I had too many internal guards up in my quest for my own freedom to fully soak him in.  And then my Peace Corps assignment came.  I had to l look on a map of the world to find Cameroon.  This relationship would never last.  No boy no matter how tall, Greek or handsome was going to stand in the way of my future.  Over two bottles of Pinot Grigio, I decided to let him go.

We kept in touch through scattered phone calls and broken e-mails, dancing with our tangled emotions between lingering over what could have been to setting each other free.  I boarded a plane in New York breathing in the air of hope of the days to come and choking on the weight of the exhale of saying goodbye.

And then came Africa.  I set foot on the brightest, boldest colors on a canvas filled with gorgeous potential and great despair.  My emotions couldn’t decipher all that my mind was taking in.  It was a feast for the senses.  The smell of sweet corn being grilled on open flames on the side of the road.  The sound of a shrieking chicken being killed on our patio (the freshest chicken I have ever had).  The feel of young fingers braiding my chestnut brown hair.  And perhaps the most vivid was the sight of people paralyzed from the waist down, supporting their weight on their mud encrusted hands, dragging their legs behind them.  Paralyzed by a lack of funds and lack of medical availability for a wheelchair to exist, to take them anywhere at all.  I remember thinking that this is what it truly feels like to see.

When the weekly mail was distributed there were almost always letters from the boy I left behind.  Not just letters- love letters.  The kind that everyone should receive in their lifetime.  I could almost taste him from thousands of miles away.  Pen on paper of the words I was too blind before to even read.  I drank those letters in- every drop of ink smelled like a future I wasn’t sure could ever be mine again.

As the days dredged on, I ached for the people on the street, I ached for their poverty, for the children of dilapidated schools, the ache of their diseases and the ache of their resistance in wanting to change all that they have ever known.  I couldn’t blame them.  I wouldn’t want a 21-year old stranger who thinks she knows everything to come to my home to convince me that my ways were incorrect, that there is a better way, a healthier way, a more hopeful way.  What if I don’t want to be changed; what if I am happy in my home and in my life.  It was challenging to find a common ground and the language barrier (the family I lived with only spoke French and I could barely say bonjour) felt like a great divide.

Health and safety concerns also grew in the family that I stayed with.  I was afraid. I was no longer safe in the confines of my mosquito net. The Peace Corps told me that I had to decide in a night whether or not to be transferred to a different family or to choose to return home.  I instantly pictured that boy, though I now didn’t see him that way.  He was a man and he was the only man I wanted to share a life with.  I decided to flip a coin.  Heads I would stay in Africa, tails I would head home.  It was heads.  My immediate reaction was to do two out of three.

My mom picked up a bonier yet stronger version of myself from the airport.  After a long embrace and a tear-filled pause she said, “You have aged.”  That day I called him and I could hear his jaw collapse when he heard my shaken voice say hello.  We met over pints, not able to pick up where we had left off because too much had changed and grown.  Not able to start again because we already had known so much about how to make the other one laugh.  So we decided on a beautiful in-between.  We let each other in.

We were engaged within a year and our best man gave a stunning speech recounting our love story, explaining that a natural love conquers all.  The last line he spoke before our favorite people in the world toasted us was that “mothers always, always know best.”

One day I will go back to Africa.  I will never give up on trying to make a difference in this world.  I’m just not sure that I will be alone.  With four children and my bon amour I will take it all in with open eyes and a gloriously more open soul.


  1. It is indeed a beautiful and amazing story for two beautiful and amazing people!